As of today, Governor Jay Inslee has mandated that all schools close until April 24 in light of the threat of COVID-19. As ground zero for the outbreak in the United States, Seattle has quickly become a ghost town. Even on a beautiful clear day in the middle of March, there are few people out. Restaurants are closed, bars are closed, libraries are closed: all those years perfecting the Seattle Freeze have prepared us for this moment.
Today also marks my school’s first foray into remote learning, and it has been a whirlwind of troubleshooting, problem-solving, and cohabiting the same 800 square foot apartment as my husband while we both work from home. It has been a day filled with ambiguity, but also a day filled with great intentions and can-do confidence from faculty, families, and administration. As I mentioned in my previous post, the human element of bringing this project into fruition can’t be overstated.
One silver lining to this pandemic has been that teachers finally feel like they have the space to learn and create. While today might not be the ideal day to start something new, there is undeniably a focused energy towards accepting change and learning a new skill. The crisis has served to knit us closer together and to allow us to take risks in a way that a professional development workshop could not. Whether it’s adopting Teams as a video meeting platform, testing Zoom out for parent-teacher conferences the day before they happen, or learning how to share the correct kind of file type with families, Day One of remote learning has truly taken a village.
One behavior has cropped up in this that seems emblematic of a human reaction. If anything, COVID-19 looms as an invisible enemy and renders us helpless beyond upping our hygiene and increasing our social distancing practices. More than that though, there is a human desire to want to help when we otherwise feel helpless, to feel that we are doing something productive in times of crisis. In his interview with Krista Tippett for her podcast, On Being, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describes how mindful movement guides recovery through traumatic experiences. He cites examples of visiting Puerto Rico after Hurricane Hugo and witnessing those citizens in the act of rebuilding their city. This act allowed people to become “agents in their own recovery” and to direct their energies towards something productive and community-oriented. When FEMA arrived and directed citizens to stop, this energy was redirected towards anger.
In many ways, the build-up to and launch of our remote learning has been a way for our community to target its energy towards something productive and community-oriented. In my role, it’s been an enriching study of how to best leverage technology to lift students’ voices and amplify learning beyond the classroom in informal and unorothdox learning environments. It’s given teachers and administrators a means to keep busy and focused on one task at a time. At the same time, families are searching for the same outlet. Many parents are sending us resources with the best intentions. As a result, my inbox has been flooded this weekend with All Staff emails from families and teachers sharing links to this application or this video or that program. Threads were forming between two teachers sharing links and replying all to division emails, in addition to every educational technology company I’d ever expressed interest in spamming my inbox with promotions and tips for schools affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
I love seeing the uptick in teachers seeking out technological tools for their students in this novel learning environment. However, two points are clear to me: first, too much information all at once is effectively useless. There’s no way I’m going to sift through the email thread between two colleagues discussing lessons for their specific grade level class if I’ve already got 47 emails unread. What’s more, it’s impossible to vet what is actually useful in this scenario, what is redundant to what’s already been said, and what is just an effective marketing scheme by some edtech company in Silicon Valley.
Second, while the sharing of information is well-intentioned, it’s also rooted in the anxiety of feeling helpless in a scary time. Parents are concerned that they are not doing enough at home and are scouring the internet and comparing workloads, and they’re attempting to harness the fear and panic they’re experiencing towards something productive. Teachers are haphazardly sharing resources without taking the time to consider how to best organize them because we haven’t had time and they want to help. It’s a reaction to an event, and we need to take some time to pause and reflect. This is a human problem that we can resolve using a thoughtful system.
So, how can we take into account the human element of this behavior and honor the intention, which is to feel helpful? Our solution is to create a shared inbox to direct the suggestions, which is based off a strategy I’ve already implemented in the Technology Department. Parents are encouraged to forward their discoveries to this mailbox, where a small committee of people will go through all the recommendations. The committee is currently a group of 4 administrators but has been opened to teachers who might be interested in joining as well. After the inbox and exploration, the committee inputs the data into an excel sheet before deciding whether to recommend the application or not.
The workflow is less important than the impact. This design does not disempower parents and teachers from sharing and feeling as though they are participating in a greater good. Rather, it gives them a focused place to share that information without overwhelming an already full inbox. It builds community within our school by allowing us to have discussions within the committee about incoming suggestions, and it introduces new ideas in a controlled way. The intention is to continue to allow our community members to feel like agents in their recovery, so to speak, as we all respond and adapt to a rapidly evolving pandemic. And, it’s a simple design, one that can be replicated and molded as need be.